Boris Johnson rings Tory Partygate critics personally amid division

Boris Johnson rings Tory critics personally as number publicly slamming Partygate antics nears leadership vote threshold of 54 and ethics chief mulls quitting – as Raab defends PM and top backbench MP admits that there is no-one fit to replace him

  • Almost 50 Tory MPs have criticised the PM in public over Partygate antics
  • Mr Johnson is said to be ringing around wavering backbenchers personally 
  • Under party rules, 54 have to submit no confidence letters to trigger a vote 

The Conservatives were embroiled in a deepening row over Boris Johnson’s leadership today as the number of MPs going public with criticism rose.

Almost 50 Conservative backbenchers have questioned the PM’s behaviour in public over the ‘Partygate’ scandal, while some have held talks over a possible replacement.

Mr Johnson is said to be ringing around wavering backbenchers personally to try to shore up his position. 

Under party rules, 54 have to submit letters of no confidence in him to trigger a vote on his leadership – though it is not clear if all critics have taken that step.

Former Cabinet minister and leadership challenger Dame Andrea Leadsom yesterday joined the trickle of Tories who have broken cover to criticise Mr Johnson over the No10 parties.

She plunged the knife in as John Stevenson became the latest Tory MP to write a letter demanding the Prime Minister face a confidence vote.

It came as the PM’s ethics tsar Lord Geidt said there was a ‘legitimate question’ about whether his Partygate fine represented a breach of the ministerial code after senior civil servant Sue Gray released a report into her findings. 

But today the PM’s allies lashed out, insisting that his position was safe and questioning whether any of those mooted as possible alternatives were up to the job. 

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that they might not be ‘a positive asset to the country, compared to what you’ve got at the moment’.

Asked about a leadership election, he added: ‘During that time there will be complete stasis of leadership of this country at a time when we are in a really serious situation with the cost-of-living crisis, with potentially rail strikes.

‘And the other problem is, who would you have? There will be at least five or six candidates that would put in for the job. Somebody will emerge, but there’ll be a lot of colleagues who haven’t voted for that particular candidate.

‘That candidate will then have the job of reuniting the party, trying to deal with all the problems that the country faces. And I think at the moment for me, we should leave matters as they are.’

And Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has said he does not believe there will be a vote of no confidence against Boris Johnson next week, as predicted.

He told Sky News: ‘I just don’t see that. I think the Westminster bubble and village whips this stuff up. I’m not saying it’s not serious and significant. But we dealt with all of those issues, the Prime Minister has dealt with all those issues.

Nearly 50 Conservative party MPs have criticised Boris Johnson in public over the ‘Partygate’ scandal, while some have held talks over a possible replacement

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘You’ve got to actually work out whether that new prime minister is actually going to be a positive asset to the country, compared to what you’ve got at the moment’

Allies of the Prime Minister warned the plotters they could destroy the Conservative Party’s best chance of winning the next election.

As the mood at Westminster darkened, Mr Johnson’s supporters hit back at the ‘disgruntled ex-ministers’ and nervous backbenchers agitating against him.

Since the end of last week a steady stream of MPs – having had a chance to study Ms Gray’s report in detail and consult with their constituents – have come forward calling on Mr Johnson to quit.

According to The Times, 30 Tory MPs have now called for a confidence vote, while a further 16 have spoken publicly against their embattled party leader.

Under party rules, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee is required to call a vote of confidence in Mr Johnson’s leadership if 54 Tory MPs – 15 per cent of the parliamentary party – submit a letter calling for one. 

There is a growing belief at Westminster that it is only a matter of time before the 54 letters from Conservative MPs needed to trigger a confidence vote are reached.

Former Tory leader William Hague said the Prime Minister was in ‘real trouble’ while another ex-leader, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, appealed to colleagues to halt their plotting until celebrations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee are over.

The celebrations which will take centre stage from Thursday and over the weekend.

The Times also reported that rebel MPs have discussed trade minister Penny Mordaunt as a possible successor. Others are said to back former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee.

From the current cabinet, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace are also seen as being in the running should Mr Johnson be ousted.

Former Cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom yesterday joined the trickle of Tories who have broken cover to criticise the Prime Minister over the No10 parties

Boris Johnson toasts in 10 Downing Street during gathering on the departure of a special adviser, in London, Britain November 13, 2020 in this picture obtained from civil servant Sue Gray’s report published on May 25, 2022

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s backers accused the agitators of ‘doing Labour’s bidding’.

One Cabinet source said: ‘The rebels don’t have a plan apart from dripping out the names of people who don’t like the PM or who have an axe to grind. It is disgruntled ex-ministers and a couple of frit 2019ers [frightened MPs from the 2019 intake]. None is a surprise.’

Downing Street insisted Mr Johnson still represented the best hope of victory for the Tories at the next general election. ‘Who is the alternative?’ a source asked.

It came as: 

  • Sir Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner received questionnaires from Durham Constabulary over Beergate;
  • The PM began phoning Conservative MPs to shore up support;
  • Former Tory leader William Hague said Mr Johnson was in ‘real trouble’;
  • Sir Iain Duncan Smith, another ex-leader, appealed to colleagues to halt their plotting until celebrations for the Platinum Jubilee are over.

No10 last night rejected a suggestion that Mr Johnson could call a vote of confidence himself to end speculation over his leadership. A source said: ‘No. We have got to focus on delivering for the public and getting on with things that really make a difference to people’s lives rather than talking about ourselves.’

No 10 also warned the rebels not to pull the rug from under the PM as he prepares to represent Britain at a series of international gatherings, where leaders will discuss the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As pressure grew on Mr Johnson yesterday, Dame Andrea became the latest senior figure to criticise him publicly. 

The former Cabinet minister, who backed Mr Johnson for the leadership in 2019, said Sue Gray’s report into Partygate had exposed ‘unacceptable failings of leadership that cannot be tolerated and are the responsibility of the Prime Minister’.

A Cabinet source dismissed her remarks, saying: ‘She got fired from Cabinet by Boris and wasn’t happy, so why is anyone surprised when she comes out [against him]?’

But Lord Hague said it was clear that allies of Mr Johnson who believed he had escaped unscathed after the muted initial response to Miss Gray’s findings were mistaken. He said the senior civil servant’s findings had lit a ‘slow fuse’ which could lead to a leadership ballot as early as next week.

Lord Geidt (pictured) blasted Boris Johnson for having failed to have address allegations he breached the code in any of his recent public statements on Partygate

A picture of Mr Johnson at a gathering in the Cabinet Room of No 10 on his birthday, which has been released with the publication of Sue’s Gray report into Downing Street parties in Whitehall during Covid

Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on the Ministerial Code, also questioned the Prime Minister’s willingness to ‘take responsibility for his own conduct’ in relation to the ministerial rules and delivered a withering assessment of exchanges with Downing Street officials.

This included Lord Geidt advising them that Mr Johnson should be ‘ready to offer public comment’ on his obligations under the code, noting this had ‘not been heeded’.

Mr Johnson, in a letter released on Tuesday evening, responded by claiming the FPN ‘did not breach’ the Ministerial Code as there was ‘no intent to break the law’.

He also insisted he had taken ‘full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch’ in light of lockdown-busting gatherings in Downing Street and pointed to his House of Commons apology.

Amid suggestions Lord Geidt was considering his position over the handling of the issue, the Cabinet Office pushed back and insisted he is not quitting.

But Lord Geidt appeared to hint about the prospect when, in his annual report, he noted he had attempted to avoid offering advice to Mr Johnson about his obligations under his own Ministerial Code.

He added: ‘If a Prime Minister’s judgment is that there is nothing to investigate or no case to answer, he would be bound to reject any such advice, thus forcing the resignation of the independent adviser.

‘Such a circular process could only risk placing the Ministerial Code in a place of ridicule.’

The exchanges were made public after more Tory MPs publicly called for Mr Johnson to quit in the wake of Sue Gray’s report on lockdown parties Downing Street.

Rebel MPs have discussed trade minister Penny Mordaunt (pictured) as a possible successor to Boris Johnson. Others have touted former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt

Last night it was reported that rebel Tories believe Mr Johnson could call a snap general election if he faces a confidence vote and wins by a slim margin. Two MPs told Bloomberg that backbenchers were discussing the possibility the PM could seek a fresh mandate from voters.

Defending the PM, science minister George Freeman told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One: ‘He did not stand as the patron saint of virtue. People knew who they were electing.

‘He got a massive majority, got us out of the Brexit deadlock, delivered the vaccine rollout. Before we change prime ministers, we need to make sure we’re doing the day job first. We mustn’t be driven by short-term speculation.’

Johnson loyalist Nadine Dorries added: ‘I think everybody should get behind the Prime Minister. People don’t vote for divided parties.’ 

Former cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom became the latest senior figure to publicly criticise Mr Johnson, saying Ms Gray’s report had exposed ‘unacceptable failings of leadership that cannot be tolerated and are the responsibility of the Prime Minister’.

In a letter to her constituents shared on social media, she stopped short of calling for him to go but said she and other Tory MPs ‘must now decide individually on what is the right course of action that will restore confidence in our Government’.

Meanwhile, Carlisle MP John Stevenson became the latest Tory backbencher to announce publicly that he has submitted a letter to the chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady calling for a vote of no confidence.

Baroness Davidson of Lundin Links, a former leader of the Scottish Tories, predicted there could be more letters submitted in the coming days.

She said MPs will have constituents raising their feelings during recess, telling Piers Morgan Uncensored on TalkTV: ‘I think that the trickle that you’ve seen in the last couple of days is part of that and we may see a few more.’

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